At the risk of oversimplification, I propose moral reflection on what we might call "the early Jesus" and the "later Jesus." Here I am referring to the Christian followers and their interpretation of Jesus' words. The early letters of St. Paul, and to some degree the Gospel of Mark, have captured the urgency of moral change and the need to live an intensely upright moral existence in preparation for an imminent global Second Coming of catastrophe, judgment, and condemnation. This is very similar to the moral thought of John the Baptist as well. Not only is the baptized Christian--having been washed free from sin--expected to keep his nose clean, but he is expected to adopt a futuristic moral stance for the coming glory. Thus we get advice from early Paul: "Men who have wives should live as they do not (i.e., live celibately)" in order to stay focused on future events. Or, in Jesus's case, "If you hand is an occasion of sin, cut it off...."
There is no evidence that the Church integrated these early apocalyptic moral teachings into later formularies or directives. Even in the earliest centuries, and despite the fact that such quotes appear in the inspired texts, Church fathers as a rule interpreted such sayings metaphorically, such as "watch and pray, for you know not either the time or the hour (of your own death and rendering.)" This is moral counsel that carries a perpetual timeliness, and it continues as the backbone to our own personal understanding of destiny and judgment.
Returning to the moral teachings of Jesus, however, as the Second Coming did not occur imminently and the young Church grew in numbers and wisdom, it passed into what might be called the "second generation" understanding of Jesus' moral vision. Here the Church becomes much more dependent upon the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, whose authors worked to penetrate the moral vision of Jesus for a long-term Church, perhaps a Church of generations, centuries, millennia, and multiple empires. The need, then, was to discern the moral teaching intention of the Savior for individuals who might very well live a long and fruitful 90-year life, or a Church for that matter that might extend many thousands of years.
It would not do for the Church to "hunker down" behind moats. One of the first of the second generation writers, St. Matthew, makes this very clear when he conveys Christ's teaching to avoid hiding lamps under bushel baskets. Perhaps as Matthew wrote his Gospel, pagans were already beginning to say of Christians, "See how they love another." The second generation understanding of Jesus' intentions featured a delineation of how one who becomes another Christ by baptism walks through the world drawing all peoples to saving grace over long periods of time.
There is near unanimity that St. Matthew wished to cast the narrative of Jesus into a "New Moses" motif, to indicate to Christian coverts from Judaism that they had indeed come home to a new and restored Jerusalem where the Mosaic tradition of Law was still revered. Of course, Jesus had said that he would bring the "law and the prophets to their completion" so it would not do simply to repeat the Ten Commandments and accompanying commentary. Instead, Jesus took to another mountaintop, a new Sinai, and delivers the "perfected" old law, the Eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12), followed by several chapters of new commentary in St. Matthew.
The beatitudes, as the building blocks of the morality of the new covenant, present more than a few challenges. They are not "acts" per se, but rather, the underlying motivations of the moral follower of Jesus, who on multiple occasions expressed much more concern for the content of a man's heart than the outcome of his deeds. It would be left to later evangelists and then the Church itself under Spirit-filled guidance to maintain the moral spirit and intent of Jesus in the face of individual questions of right-and-wrong.
Luke takes upon himself a different literary style to convey the moral thinking of Jesus, but in the final analysis his work is of a weave with Matthew's. Luke makes use of majestic parables of attitude to model what kinds of moral thinking and instincts Jesus intends for the Kingdom of God. The parable of the Loving Father was proclaimed earlier this Lent, but consider such others as the Good Samaritan. In this parable we get a profound sense of what Christ thinks about universal responsibility toward others (the hero is from Samaria, not Israel), the laws of uncleanness are brushed aside (touching blood), there are no boundaries on need (an open line of credit is established for the unfortunate victim) and most curiously, the two religious men who by profession should have helped--the priest and the Levite--leave the wounded and possibly dying traveler to fend for himself against thirst and birds of prey.
In continuing our survey, we will see that one of the Church's great challenges down the road--certainly akin to Israel's--is maintaining a primacy of purity of conscience over the ever-present temptation of moralists to “spell it out” with accountant’s precision.